Part 6: Millington on "Lohengrin"

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Part 6: Millington on "Lohengrin"

Post by alberich00 » Sat Feb 09, 2013 12:20 pm

Dear Discussion Forum participants/visitors:

Here's is Part 6 of my review of Millington's chapter on "Lohengrin" from his 2012 book "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," and his essay on "Lohengrin," "Asking the Right Question," published online in 2005 by the Seattle Opera (revised now by taking account also of Millington's essay "Elsa, Lohengrin and the Tell-Tale Halo," published by the Houston Grand Opera for their production of "Lohengrin" in October and November of 1992)

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“Ludwig Feuerbach’s groundbreaking critique of religion was to have a profound impact on Wagner’s works, beginning with “Lohengrin.” [from a description under a portrait of Ludwig Feuerbach in Chapter 7 “Swansong to Traditional Opera: ‘Lohengrin’,” in Millington’s “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth,” page 63]

[PH] Millington noted also that in his view it's unlikely that Wagner had read Feuerbach until the end of the 1840's (suggesting I suppose that he didn't read Feuerbach until after completing "Lohengrin"), but that nonetheless Wagner may have absorbed Feuerbach's ideas, or related ideas which were in the air in Dresden, prior to completing "Lohengrin." I would concur, and would go further. I find very powerful evidence of a direct knowledge of Feuerbach not only in "Lohengrin," but also in Wagner's prior opera "Tannhaeuser." Tannhaeuser's complaint to Venus that her offer of endless bliss, immortality, is too much for him, and that he desires instead a life within time and space on earth, with pain and death, seems like a pretty close paraphrase of remarks Feuerbach published as early as 1830 in his "Thoughts on Death and Immortality" (you will find all these passages from Feuerbach in my critical chronological anthology of Feuerbach's writings, and Wagner's writings and recorded remarks, Appendix II of

[PH] I recall that Jean-Jacques Nattiez wrote in his "Wagner Androgyne" (a book cited by Millington and referenced in the bibliography of "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth") that the question of when Wagner first read Feuerbach, and precisely what he read, remains something of a mystery. It is not a mystery to me. Wagner very explicitly stated in one of his letters to August Roeckel that he was fully familiar with "Thoughts on Death and Immortality," "The Essence of Christianity," "Principles of the Philosophy of the Future," and "The Essence of Religion." These are the four Feuerbach books from which I drew the 350 or so extracts employed in my online book "The Wound That Will Never Heal" (posted here at, and included in my anthology in Appendix II. The only canonical Wagner artwork which doesn't offer decisive evidence of Feuerbach's direct influence is "The Flying Dutchman," though my own original reading of this earliest of Wagner's important operas is conceptually akin to those I offer for Wagner's subsequent artworks, for a variety of reasons. Of course, it is well known that Wagner compared Wotan specifically with the Dutchman (both are wandering Jews, so to speak, who are seeking redemption but can't find it), and that Kundry is likewise regarded as an archetypal wandering Jew who can't find redemption.

“The Genesis creation myth describes Eve as both innocent and as guilty of giving Adam the fatal knowledge through which we lost our innocence. The Serpent tempted her to obtain knowledge that God had forbidden us to have: knowing good and evil, we would become like God. However, once we lost our innocence through Eve, the knowledge that the Serpent promised would give divine power in fact revealed our mortal nature. ‘Innocence’ had betrayed us. Yet the reverse could be the truer case, as it is equally possible that knowledge of our mortal, natural self inspired us to imagine and to long for divine power that is freed from nature. (…)
If our desire for redemption from the world’s anguish (‘Noth’) is inspired by the harsh world, our idea of paradise itself may be a product of this desire. If so, we were not immortal prior to our fall through knowledge but simply had not yet acquired consciousness of our mortality.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa Showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” pages 67-68]

“It should come as no surprise … that in the years following the completion of ‘Lohengrin’ Wagner debunked religious world-renunciation and praised instead the Feuerbachian notion that God was made in man’s image:

‘Let us glance, then, for a moment at this future state of Man, when he shall have freed himself from his last heresy, the denial of Nature – that heresy which has taught him hitherto to look upon himself as a mere instrument to an end which lay outside himself.’ (‘Art and Revolution,’ GS III, 33; PW I, 57)” [from Heise’s “How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried,” page 84]

It is obvious that my 5/95 paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" interpreted "Lohengrin" as a critique of religion in the spirit of Feuerbach. What I find most interesting is that my knowledge of Feuerbach at the time I wrote the paper was limited to a few passages quoted in books about Wagner by other authors, such as Deryck Cooke. I didn't really read Feuerbach's four books listed above methodically until the late 90's and the early 2000's. I was startled as I read these works to discover dozens and dozens of observations by Feuerbach about religious psychology which corresponded precisely with dozens and dozens of observations I had made about what I took to be the underlying meaning of Wagner's canonical operas and music-dramas. Later, upon comparing Wagner's writings and recorded remarks with Feuerbach's writings, I realized that Wagner had paraphrased (perhaps unconsciously, for certainly he rarely credited Feuerbach) Feuerbach over and over and over again. Readers of "The Wound That Will Never Heal" will see how I have methodically compared Feuerbach's original passages with Wagner's paraphrases of them in his writings and recorded remarks, and poetic allegorizations of them in his operas, from "Tannhaeuser" through "Parsifal."

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“The influence of the humanist philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach is … crucial here, for the figure of Lohengrin evidently appealed to Wagner not primarily as some kind of divine protector or saviour, but as a ‘metaphysical phenomenon’ whose contact with human nature could end only in tragedy; the Christian trappings of the legend were of essentially symbolic value to him.” [from Chapter 7 “Swansong to Traditional Opera: ‘Lohengrin’,” in Millington’s “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth,” page 65]

“We are compelled … to confront a disturbing question. If … we did not fall from grace with heaven but invented heaven as an antidote to nature’s truth, the true source of Lohengrin’s inspiration is actually our hell, our inability to accept our true nature and natural limits, and not heaven. If this is so and if the folk instinctively feel the danger that they themselves would face in bringing this knowledge to consciousness, they would behave exactly as they do in ‘Lohengrin,’ banishing and censuring all who bring their false beliefs into doubt and making a virtue of ignorance.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried”]

[PH] Millington notes here that Wagner seems to have seen Lohengrin not as a divine saviour but as a metaphysical phenomenon whose contact with human nature would end in tragedy, and of course he alludes, when speaking of tragedy, presumably and mainly to the fact that Elsa feels compelled to ask the question which compels Lohengrin to share the secret of his identity, and that this forces Lohengrin to leave her forever. Elsa also dies (in some sense) at the end. But as one can see from my remarks below, I spell out in detail this tragedy: the tragedy is that man is compelled by his/her very nature to seek to transcend his natural, mortal limits, and, as Feuerbach said, it is the very nature of the mind to reify its gift of symbolic abstraction and generalization, and to call this God, and imagine this God as more true and real than our everyday experience of our physical world. The tragedy is that this illusion is historically predestined to be lost by man himself through his inevitable advancement in knowledge over time. This is the cause of what Wagner called the unhealing wound. This, as I have shown in all my prior essays on Wagner's canonical operas and music-dramas, is the conceptual substrate behind all of Wagner's inspired artistic production, and in fact constitutes the plot of his "Ring." In "Parsifal," as I have shown, the artist-hero (in whom all prior heroes of religion and art are figuratively reincarnate), Parsifal, becoming fully self-conscious and enlightened with respect to this terrible truth, renounces retrospectively all his prior efforts to redeem man from the truth, and to deny Mother Nature in favor of an illusory realm of ideals and the spirit, renounces his former muse of unconscious artistic inspiration (Kundry), and finally heals the unhealing wound of man (Amfortas) by renouncing all further efforts to redeem man from the truth. Parsifal reconciles himself and man to his true nature and mortality. Thus Mother Nature's innocence is restored in the end, while Parsifal's former muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, Kundry, having lost her function as his unconscious mind, ceases to be.

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“The supersedure of the gods by humans was to become a central theme of the “Ring” cycle too: Wotan learns voluntarily to relinquish his divine authority in favor of the new order represented by Siegfried and Bruennhilde. Lohengrin’s desire to be human may thus be seen as a bid for the free, emancipated humanity aspired to in the “Ring.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]

[PH] The whole point of my 5/95 paper on "Lohengrin" was to demonstrate that through a new reading of "Lohengrin" as a critique of religious faith, we can grasp how it became Wagner's conceptual and artistic entre into the revolution which produced his music-dramas, and that many, many aspects of the "Ring" plot can be understood by a close analysis of Elsa's words and actions and relationship with Lohengrin. In the final portions of my multi-part critique of Millington's essays on "Lohengrin" I will show this in greater detail.

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“In the “Ring,” it is Freia’s golden apples that constantly rejuvenate the gods, and Bruennhilde whose feminine wisdom ultimately restores sanity and hope to a strife-ridden world. In the same way, Elsa was regarded by Wagner – at least in “A Communication to My Friends” – in a wholly positive and praiseworthy light. The essay was written four or five years after the main work on the opera, after Wagner’s discovery of Feuerbach, and after the experience of the 1848/1849 revolution – all of which may have colored his view to some extent. Yet the stance adopted by Wagner that the inner meaning of his work was only slowly revealed to him has a certain conviction. It was through Elsa, Wagner claimed, that he first ‘learned to understand the purely human element of love.’ For the sake of unalloyed, unconditional love, she is driven to ask the question that cannot be avoided. She ‘awakes from the thrill of worship into the full reality of love’ … . “ [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]

[PH] In my 5/95 paper "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" I showed how Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's demand for faith, her insistence on sharing with him the responsibility of protecting him from the anguish which Ortrud said would come to him if his identity and origin were revealed, was the model for Wagner's Bruennhilde in the "Ring," who not only disobeys her father, God-the-Father Wotan, but offers Wotan redemption from the fear caused by having to censor knowledge (i.e., fear of the truth), by asking him to confess it to her. But Elsa had only offered to share this secret with Lohengrin, so she could help him keep it. By the time Wagner writes the libretto for "The Valkyrie," Act II Scene II, in which Wotan makes his confession to Bruennhilde, Wagner had understood Elsa's offer more 'inwardly' (as he said himself in "A Communication to my Friends"), because Wotan doesn't merely share his self-knowledge (of his status as a fraud posing as divine) with Bruennhilde. In making his confession to her, he actually is repressing his unbearable self-knowledge, which he couldn't bear to speak aloud, into his "Will" Bruennhilde, his unconscious mind, so that he need not fear it or even fear its exposure to the light of day. This gives birth to Siegfried, whose role in "Lohengrin" is played cryptically by Godfrey, Lohengrin's mortal heir. Siegfried is fearless, and unlike Wotan doesn't "foresee" the end (of the gods) Erda - Mother Nature (represented in "Lohengrin" cryptically by Ortrud) - had predicted, because Bruennhilde holds Wotan's dangerous and intolerable self-knowledge for Siegfried, so that he can be a fearless creator, i.e., the artist-hero who, unlike the religiously faithful, need not fear or censor the truth because secular art is feeling minus dogma, minus assertions of fact which can be contradicted by scientific knowledge (as both Feuerbach and Wagner said). Religious faith has, in effect, been transformed into feeling, music, which is non-conceptual and escapes the debate between truth and deception. In this sense Elsa goes from worship (i.e., religious faith) to love (love between male hero and female heroine, in Wagner's artworks from at least "Tannhaeuser" onward, is his metaphor for the artist-hero's unconscious artistic inspiration; the muse holds for him the unbearable knowledge of man's irresolvable existential dilemma, the unhealing wound, so that he can safely be inspired by this terrible truth to create a salve or balm for it, Wahn, artistic illusion and feeling). As both Feuerbach and Wagner said, the artist stakes no claim to the truth and its power (represented in the "Ring" by Alberich's ring, Alberich's hoard of treasure, and the hoard of knowledge which Wotan the world-wanderer - Feuerbachian symbol for God, collective, historical man - amasses throughout world-history, and thus accumulates the hoard), and therefore is free to express himself without fear of contradiction by the truth. As Feuerbach and Wagner say, the artist is only concerned with play, illusion, feeling, not assertions of fact or dogmatic proclamations of truth.

So, Elsa, as Wagner said, transitions from the religious perspective of unquestioning worship (the state of ignorance in which she leaves the assembled crowds in "Lohengrin," those who wish to preserve Lohengrin's secret without questioning it), to that of secular art, the union of artist-hero with his heroine-muse, his unconscious mind, who holds for him the secret of his inspiration.

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